Over one recent weekend in Port-au-Prince, Éric Jean Baptiste, a prominent politician, and his bodyguard were murdered by gangsters while driving through the capital in an armoured car. Across town at a protest outside a police station, radio journalist Romelson Vilsaint was fatally wounded when he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister launched by police officers, witnesses said.
The two acts of violence were unrelated, but speak to the chaos engulfing Haiti as its regional neighbours try to rally an international response.
On Friday, the US and Canada levied sanctions on two members of the political elite — Joseph Lambert, the president of the Haitian senate, and former senator Youri Latortue. Both men are accused of drug trafficking and having ties to the violent gangs that roil the country. Both denied the charges in social media posts.
“The United States and our international partners will continue to take action against those who facilitate drug trafficking, enable corruption, and seek to profit from instability in Haiti,” Brian Nelson, the US Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
“Canada will not remain idle while gangs and those who support them terrorise Haiti’s citizens,” said Mélanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister, in a statement. More sanctions are expected to be announced in the weeks ahead.
Haiti is mired in a political and humanitarian crisis that escalated in July last year when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his mansion in circumstances that remain mysterious. Acting prime minister Ariel Henry emerged victorious in the ensuing power struggle, though his leadership has since been dogged by mass protests and questions of his legitimacy.
The situation on the ground has worsened as violent gangs, some reportedly operating with support from politicians, have warred over territory with civilians often caught in the crossfire.
“Everyday you see people die,” one Port-au-Prince resident told the Financial Times, asking not to be named for fear of reprisals. “It is not safe to walk around outside. I have never seen it like this.”
The number of displaced Haitians has reached 96,000, tripling in the past five months, according to the UN, which also estimates that a record 4.7mn people — nearly half of the population — are facing acute hunger.
Cholera is spreading once more, with 3,429 suspected cases across six provinces last month, according to the Pan American Health Organisation. A previous outbreak — believed to have been started by UN peacekeepers — killed nearly 10,000 people between 2010 and 2019.
Meanwhile, the US is attempting to drum up support among its neighbours for another international intervention in order to lift gang roadblocks and guarantee the passage of aid around the country.
Though Henry has requested the measure, few countries have offered to lead such a task force, though the Bahamas has said it would send troops or police if requested. Washington has said it is confident of securing a resolution at the UN Security Council for a deployment.
“This is a work in progress and we are continuing to pursue it,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken told reporters during a recent visit to Ottawa. “We have both been talking to a variety of countries to gauge their interest in and willingness to participate in that.”
Previous interventions in Haiti have exacerbated the country’s woes. UN peacekeepers that arrived following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake were accused of sexual violence and abuse, as well as bringing cholera to the nation.
Renata Segura, deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Crisis Group, said that while such a deployment this time may open humanitarian corridors, it would be fraught with difficulties.
“The fact that these troops could be seen by many in Haiti as consolidating the power of unelected Henry could mean that, as they alleviate the humanitarian crisis, they end up aggravating the political crisis.”
On Thursday, the police announced that they had seized control of the Varreux fuel terminal in Port-au-Prince, lifting a weeks-long blockade carried out by the powerful G9 coalition of gangs.
Amid nationwide protests against Henry’s leadership, the gang said it would not move until the acting prime minister resigned, and throttled fuel supplies in a country where much of the population relies on generators to power their homes and businesses.
Aid workers told the FT on Friday that fuel deliveries had not yet been made, despite the end of the siege. The UN Security Council last month unanimously voted to sanction Jimmy Chérizier, the leader of the G9. Chérizier said on social media on Sunday that the G9 had lifted its blockade.
Louis-Henri Mars, who runs a longstanding peace-building initiative in Haiti, said that sanctions will do little if gang financiers in Haiti and overseas are not tackled.
“They demonise the locals but have so far closed their eyes to those profiting sweetly from gun and ammunition sales for the murderous rampages.”